The Essential Guide to Taro: Where to Buy Poi in Hawai‘i
Local companies have found ways to commercially produce poi in an effort to get more taro on the table.
Liko Hoe hand-pounds taro to make poi outside the historic Waiāhole Poi Factory.
Photo: ELYSE BUTLER MALLAMS
Waiāhole Poi Factory
At the Waiāhole Poi Factory, a big wooden building along Kamehameha Highway, crowds of visitors and locals alike line up for big plates of steamed lau lau, shredded kālua pig, lomi salmon, haupia and poi, nearly all of it grown or prepared nearby in the valley. This structure has been standing since 1905, although the business has changed over the years. When Calvin and Charlene Hoe first purchased the poi factory in 1971 from the Japanese family who originally owned and operated it, they converted the facility into a Native Hawaiian art gallery.
It would be 10 years before the Hoes began using the factory’s mills to process fresh kalo grown in Waiāhole Valley into poi. In 2009, they converted an incubator kitchen space in the building, which they had previously rented to farmers to test food ideas and prepare Hawaiian plate lunches.
The idea took off.
Today, they sell nearly 200 plates a day and close to 200 pounds of hand-pounded poi from the factory every week. About a year ago, they stopped producing poi by mill; Calvin’s sons Liko and Kawai can be seen out front most days, pounding all the kalo by hand, stone-to-board.
“It’s something that may make us a little more unique, something people come to the factory specifically for,” says Liko. “People can watch the process, ask questions and learn a bit about it.”
Business is booming for Waiāhole Poi Factory between the plate lunches and the poi. The company also sells raw taro that people purchase and take home to pound themselves.
“For a long time, poi was just on the side or for parties and special occasions. In the last 20 years or so … we’ve been seeing more people incorporating taro and poi into their diets,” Liko says. “I hope that continues.”
48-140 Kamehameha Highway, Waiāhole, (808) 239-2222, waiaholepoifactory.com
Hanalei Poi Co.
In April 1999, Kaua‘i taro farmers Hobey Beck and Michael “Bino” Fitzgerald came together to mill the first commercial batch of poi on the island in more than 30 years. Farmers got tired of being told how much taro they could grow or sell and what price their batches would receive from the mills on O‘ahu. So, instead, they decided to do it all themselves—growing the taro, milling the poi, handling distribution and managing operations.
It was a struggle but the response was overwhelming. In its first year, Hanalei Poi Co. had a staff of four and earned $300,000 in gross sales. The next year, the staff grew to 25 and revenue tripled to $900,000. The poi is sold in one-pound containers, rather than plastic bags, and retails for $6. The secret was proximity: The poi could be fresher, taking only a few days from harvesting the taro to appearing on shelves (compared to other poi companies needing a week or longer). Hanalei Poi also minimized the handling of the taro which created a poi with fewer bacteria cultures so it wouldn’t sour quickly.
These days, Hanalei Poi is run by Bino and his wife, Michelle, who say that they’re moving more poi than ever—close to 10,000 pounds a week.
“People ask us questions all the time about what stuff’s been added to the poi,” Bino Fitzgerald says. “Although we make a manufactured product, there are only two ingredients, just taro and filtered water. There are no preservatives, no GMO, no junk stuff. We’re one of the few products out there in the supermarkets totally 100 percent natural.”
5-5269 Kūhiō Highway, Hanalei, (808) 826-4764, hanaleipoi.com
HPC Foods, Taro Brand
HPC stands for the Honolulu Poi Co., originally founded by Kakuichi Tottori in 1946. As the state’s largest poi manufacturer, HPC produces more than 40,000 pounds a week, totaling more than 2 million pounds a year. The company currently manages more than 200 employees, a big jump from just three people when the company started
71 years ago.
A Japanese immigrant, Tottori began with a dairy in Kīpapa in Mililani and was one of the first farmers in Hawai‘i to ship fresh pineapple to the Mainland. After World War II, he entered the poi business despite competition from nearly a dozen other poi factories on the island, including Waiāhole Poi Factory and the now-defunct Waimea Poi. In 1950, Tottori’s son, James Ichiro, took over, later joined by his son, Ernest. “I came to work for my dad in 1952,” says chairman Ernest Tottori. “I took over management in 1960 and will pass it over to the fourth generation who will take over the business. I’m 83 years old.”
As a welder and machinist by trade, Ernest Tottori built the company’s machinery himself, including a specially designed pressure cooker that can prepare more than six tons of taro per hour—a huge improvement from the old method of boiling small batches for four hours or longer.
HPC Foods currently operates a 9,000-square-foot distribution facility in Kalihi that produces and packages poi and a 15,000-square-foot facility on Waiakamilo Road processing fresh fruit and vegetables. Twenty-five refrigerated trucks deliver poi and other fresh goods to grocery stores, retail outlets and restaurants across the island; 80 percent of it is sold through stores, while 20 percent is sold directly to customers, usually for private lū‘au.
Ernest Tottori is still working at the company his grandfather built, now talking with legislators about how to grow the agriculture industry in the state.
“There’s big potential for poi,” he says. “We can make taro bread and pastries from taro flour, perfect for people with allergies to wheat. Poi is high in calcium and iron, which is good for babies if they can’t have dairy products. We have a baby food line with powdered poi you mix with water. Taro is the way.”
288 Libby St., (808) 841-8705, hpcfoods.com
Where to Buy Poi
You can buy raw taro, poi or pa‘i‘ai at these places.
Unique to Honolulu Poi Co. Foods is its frozen poi and poi powder products, both available online. You can also order the poi powder and pick it up at its Kalihi location. Cash only, though.
274 Libby St., (808) 841-8705, hpcfoods.com
Ho‘okua‘Āina in Maunawili takes preorders for freshly milled poi and kalo pa‘a (steamed chunks of taro) for pickup at the farm. Order online.
916C Auloa Road, Kailua, hookuaaina.org
The nonprofit Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi in He‘eia offers raw kalo for sale weekly and freshly milled poi when available. Order online.
46-406 Kamehameha Highway, Kāne‘ohe, kakoooiwi.org
Mana Ai sells fresh, hand-pounded pa‘i‘ai online using locally grown kalo, typically mana ‘ulu and lehua varieties. The company even ships to the U.S. Mainland and internationally for an extra cost.
(808) 542-1326, manaai.com
Pomai Kūlolo sells poi and kūlolo made from local taro. Its popular haulolo—an original dessert—combines Pomai’s house-made haupia with a layer of its kūlolo.
Various farmers markets, (808) 699-6089, facebook.com/pomaikulolo
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, workers from Waiāhole Poi Factory hand-pound poi on traditional papa ku‘i ‘ai (poi-pounding boards) available for purchase. The rustic factory also makes its own kūlolo.
48-140 Kamehameha Highway, Kāne‘ohe, (808) 239-2222, waiaholepoifactory.com
Various Foodland and Sack N Save stores on O‘ahu, Maui, Kaua‘i and the Big Island sell wetland taro when available.
Wong’s Products grows its own taro—mainly the lehua variety—on a 35-acre farm in Kahalu‘u. Order fresh taro and leaves online.
(808) 239-8021, taroleaveshawaii.com